[In the latest in our "Road to the IGF" series of interviews with 2011 IGF finalists, Gamasutra speaks with Alexander Bruce about his 2011 IGF Nuovo Award nomination for Hazard: The Journey of Life
Known around game conferences for his charismatic presentations and a blinding pink suit, Alexander "Demruth" Bruce's enthusiasm for game development is particularly clear when he talks about his self-described "art game," Hazard: The Journey of Life
The game is a finalist in the 2011 Independent Games Festival Nuovo Award category and powered by Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3. But players would be hard-pressed to recognize that this is the same engine used in mainstream games like Gears of War
and Mass Effect
There are no space marines, no aliens; just the player, a multipurpose "gun" and challenging puzzles that Bruce uses to convey philosophical ideas. Hazard
's unique art style values simplicity and stark color contrasts over the hyper-detailed realism that the engine is capable of producing.
A regular in video game competitions, Bruce's game has already won accolades at contests including Epic's Make Something Unreal contest, IndiePubGames' competition, Sense of Wonder Night, IGF China and other shows.
Here, Melbourne, Australia-based Bruce explains some of the background behind the creation of Hazard
, which he humorously bills as an "MAWPFPSPEPAG," or a "multiple award-winning philosophical first-person single-player exploration puzzle art game" -- a completely unnecessary acronym that's also a pretty accurate description.
What background do you have making games?
My commercial record from working at studios is pretty awesome: two cancelled titles, one game that was top of the charts in the UK for a while, one game that reviewed horribly and caused the studio to close and a sprint cars game.
I maintain that I caused none of that to happen though. Outside of that, I don't have a long history of making games. Chris Hecker said he started making games back in 1996? I started making my own cereal back in 1996.
What development tools did you use?
Visual Studio, PhotoShop and Unreal Engine 3. Some people complain that Unreal is limited, because you only get access to UnrealScript (with the UDK), and they've read that it's 20 times slower than native C++, etc., etc. But, I'm pretty sure they're either lying about how much they actually know about Unreal, or were hellbent on rolling their own code anyway.
Sure, creating a game like Super Meat Boy
in Unreal Engine 3 would probably seem limiting, but I don't know why anyone would attempt that in the first place. Find the tools that best suit your needs, or write everything yourself.
I've created this game as a single person, entirely in script, and the game is nothing like what Unreal was designed for. If anything, it's even more interesting that I've managed to make this game using only UnrealScript, given that people don't have any idea how a bunch of the technical stuff in it was done at all. Having this big commercial engine to work with gave me a whole lot of things to break, without having to code any of it from scratch.
How long have you been working on the game?
Oh man, too long. I had concepts and ideas that I wanted to get out of my head since 2006, and was just chipping away at them over the years. I spent six months working on Hazard
in my spare time in 2009, and I spent all of 2010 working on it full time.
The whole time, I was convinced that it was "only a couple of months away from release." I'm happy to say that it's now "only a couple of months away from release"!
How did you come up with the concept for Hazard?
I wanted to make Snake
, and I apparently failed at that -- a really strange implementation of Snake
turned into a multiplayer arena combat game about destroying the world, which turned into a single player puzzle game, which then became a game about life, exploration, psychology, non-Euclidean space and manipulable geometry.
It's all been a very iterative process of solving one design problem with a very unconventional solution, seeing the ramifications of that, then solving further problems with even more unconventional solutions. I wanted to know where doing that would take me, and I kept finding interesting things along the way that became part of the core experience.
Are you some kind of philosopher? Why so interested in philosophy with Hazard? Also, let's see some official philosopher credentials.
You know, this is an interesting question, because I don't actually think that Chris Hecker is a spy, or that Notch is a miner. So I'm sad to say it, but I don't have a doctorate in philosophy either.
When coming up with puzzles for the game, did they start with a philosophical idea, or did they start with a gameplay idea that led to a philosophical concept?
Both. In some instances I had a really weird puzzle that I needed to write a message for, and in other instances I had messages I wanted to communicate, and therefore needed to build puzzles around them. I was really struggling with some of the puzzle designs before I latched onto the philosophy idea.
What was the inspiration behind the game's art style?
Half technical reasons, half wanting to not look like every other Unreal game out there, and half wanting to know what an inverse lighting system would look like. Before you say that you can't have three halves, you should go experience how space works in Hazard
Do you expect players to learn something about themselves by playing Hazard? Do you encourage them to really analyze the "purpose" behind the puzzles?
Not really. I've had some people tell me that they didn't think the messages were very insightful, and I've had others tell me that it was a great game to play when they were depressed, because the whole game was about positive reinforcement to overcoming challenges.
The more important thing is that [the challenges] make the game personal for the player. People interpret them differently, and therefore get different things out of the game. Not everyone can relate to being Futuristic Space Hulk Marine #2097, but they can relate to trying to make the right choices, unforeseen consequences, finding something difficult and then searching for the meaning behind it, etc.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I haven't played as many as I'd have liked, but I'll rectify that at the GDC. I want SpyParty
to win though. When I first played that, I was like, "holy hell this is difficult and I have no idea how I'm supposed to get good at it," but that's what makes it so great.
You really have to throw away everything that normally makes you seem skillful in other competitive games (speed, accuracy, maneuverability, etc.), as acting like that in SpyParty
will instantly get you killed. I'm a big fan of games that ask you to start over and learn how to play again, not through bad interfaces, but through exceptional design.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
I'm glad I don't have to mail physical copies of the game to people, like Tim Sweeney did when he started Epic MegaGames. That would be the worst!
What are your thoughts on the commercial appeal of Hazard?
People used to ask this question a lot. Whether I was concerned about whether or not people would want to buy this thing, given that it was a bit weird and that it was about philosophy. But I get fewer questions about that now, once people understand that there's actually far more to it than that, even from just a games perspective.
There's always the issue of the game being so different, so out there, that it's hard to know how to market it by comparison to anything else, but that's what also makes it appealing. There isn't anything out there that you can really compare this to.
It's pretty much like Vegemite
, which tastes weird and can't be consumed in large quantities unless you want to make yourself sick. If you were trying to sell that by comparing it to chocolate, you'd have utterly failed at making a good spread, but they don't do that. People buy it because it's Vegemite, and there's nothing out there like it.
What's this I hear about porcupines in urban settings and cereal boxes?
I guess you'll just have to hang out with me at the GDC to know what this means. This can't be explained, only experienced.
[Previous 2011 'Road To The IGF' interviews have covered Markus Persson's Minecraft, The Copenhagen Game Collective's B.U.T.T.O.N., Nicolai Troshinsky's Loop Raccord and Chris Hecker's Spy Party.]